Flying with a bike: What to know and how to prepare

We’ve flown with our bikes a lot. Throughout the years, our bikes have been boxed up dozens of times and then carefully unboxed in exotic locales like Pakistan, Yemen, Mali, and Alaska. Through all that boxing and unboxing, we’ve learned a few things about flying with a bike.

bikes packed up

As tempting as it is to pack extra stuff in the bike boxes, resist the urge. Know that the boxes will be mistreated, and the heavier they are, the more likely they are to rip. Pack the bike carefully, then seal it up. It also helps to reinforce the carrying holes as that’s the first place the box will tear.

If you and your family have bikes that you know and love – and that fit you well – you may choose to take them with you on the trip rather than renting at your destination. Air travel with bikes is definitely possible, but it pays to do your research first. Here are some tips.

 

What to know

It’s possible that your bike won’t take you above maximum excess baggage allowance, although this is unlikely if you’re taking full-sized adult bikes along. Airlines will likely charge you extra, but how much extra is truly up for grabs.

Compare flights and airlines to determine exactly how much you will need to pay. Be sure to check individual airline’s websites to find out their fees as they vary widely from one airline to the next. While some airlines offer reasonable charges there are others that you may wish to avoid. BE SURE TO CHECK THIS OUT BEFORE BUYING YOUR TICKETS!!

Sometimes, airlines that provide cheap flights charge the most due to their ‘no-frills’ nature. Work out the overall cost with several airlines before you commit – some of the more expensive tickets may include bike handling fees, making the overall price cheaper.

Be aware that some airlines charge a bike fee for every bike, regardless of what kind of packaging it is in. Foldable bikes that fit in a regular suitcase can be identified through an x-ray, and the charge assessed. Be sure to read the policies and know precisely what to expect when you check in.

What to remember

You’ll also need to know how the airline wants the bike to be packaged – most require it to be in a bag of some sort, or a box. This is arguably to protect the bike and other luggage as well as to make things easier for the baggage handlers.

Hard-shell case: This is, bar none, the safest way to travel with a bike. A hard case will, however, will add a significant amount to the weight of the bike and could therefore cost you more. Another disadvantage of the hard case is that you’ll need a place to store it while on tour, and you will have to make a loop so you return to your case at the end of your tour.

Cardboard bike box: These are readily available at most bike stores – be sure to look for one a few days before you need it as bike stores are quick about recycling their boxes and might not have one on hand when you need it. Boxes are a cheap way to pack your bike and offer a certain amount of protection. They are NOT infallible, and can quite easily be crushed and your bike damaged. As with the hard-shell case, you will need a place to store the box unless you arrive into your departure location with enough time to round up a new box.

Clear bag: This is a relatively new method of “packing” bikes for air travel, and many people feel it’s the best. Basically, all you do is turn your handlebars, take off your pedals, and then roll the bike into a large bag and seal it shut. The bag offers no protection to your bike whatsoever, but will prevent from grease from getting on other luggage. Many people like this method precisely because it provides no protection, which (presumably) leads to luggage handlers treating your bike with more care.

Whichever option you choose, you can protect your bike further by adding foam tubing to the frame. You’ll need to remove the pedals and can tape them up in extra padding. We always take off our derailleurs and tape them to the frame – they seem way too vulnerable hanging down where they are. Handlebars will also need to be secured.

bike boxes

What to avoid

It’s best not to chance it when it comes to transporting bikes by air. Read up on the airline’s policy and contact them directly if anything is unclear. Print out the airline’s stated policy from their website and any correspondence you have had. This will help to alleviate confusion at the check-in gate, as individual employees may not know what the policies are. It pays to insure your bike in case of damage wherever you’re taking it.

bikes ready to fly

Flying back to the USA from Argentina, we tried a modified version of the plastic bag method of packing our tandem. We made a box to set the tandem down in, but it was only about 15″ high. Then we used plastic wrap to encase the whole thing. Our thinking was that maybe if the handlers could see that it was a tandem bicycle, they might treat it more gently. I’m not sure that actually happened, but the bikes arrived home undamaged.

Remember that stuff happens

Even if you take every precaution, disasters happen. Bikes get damaged in spite of our best efforts to protect them. John and I have been lucky in that we’ve never had a bike damaged or lost in any of the many flights we’ve taken with our bikes. Part of that is due to John’s meticulous efforts at packing them, and part due to sheer luck.

A friend, however, recently experienced a bike tourist’s worst nightmare. Here is the nightmare, as described in Kim’s own words:

I took a direct flight from Seattle to Boston. When I was checking in my bike in Seattle, they had problems finding “bicycle” so they could charge me the proper extra baggage charges. They even made a phone call to someone, but that person couldn’t find it on the computer either. As a result, I ended up getting a discount on sending my bike. I joked at the time, “This isn’t going to mess anything up, is it? You’re not going to tag it as golf clubs and then there’s confusion because it’s a bike?” They assured me it would be fine.

I arrived in Boston. The oversized baggage came out. My bike was not there. The attendant assured me it would likely arrive on the next flight. It didn’t.

She then thought it got on the wrong flight and as soon as all planes landed (including the ones to Hawaii) it would likely be found. It wasn’t.

She was perplexed. She sent out a search which included all airlines in the US to be on the lookout for it. She told me she had been doing this for 18 years and the airlines had never lost a bike. Lucky me. I was grounded in Boston, when I had planned to be out biking.

On the third day, I received authorization from the airline to replace the bike. The only limitations I was given that they had a $3400 limit per piece of luggage lost. I made the mistake of calling Central Baggage at one point and it was not clear to the individual that my bike purchase had been authorized despite me having requested it in writing. (The statement was a little bit vague as they had to revise the standard wording to fit my scenario.)  After that, I learned that I should only talk to the two people who knew the full story of what had happened and had authorized everything.

I was able to stay with my Warmshowers hosts for an additional few days, but ultimately the airline agreed to pick up my hotel costs while I waited for a new bike to arrive and be built. They told me they usually don’t do this, but given the unusual circumstances of the situation (as in, my bike was my mode of travel) they made an exception. They arranged everything with the hotel (I had to switch hotels when I asked for an additional three nights). I paid nothing out of pocket for the hotel.

I also arranged to take my receipts for my bike costs directly to the Boston airport and they would cut me a check on the spot. (Usually, you have to send in everything through a central accounting department.) Besides paying for the new bike, they also paid for all the parts attached to the bike such as the pump, computer, lock, etc. They even covered my tent which had been crammed in the box.

All in all, the airline was very good to me in the replacement of my bike and trying to make it right. They also credited some frequent flier miles to my account. I flew a reputable airline that has a history of good customer service and, in the end, they lived up to that reputation and did what they could to fix their mistake.

Of course, the day I was picking up my new bike (12 days later), my old bike was found. It had been in the Boston airport the whole time. Somehow, it had found its way to the cargo area. Although an email had been sent to this area, when the attendant didn’t hear back from them, she assumed it was not there.

The airline shipped it back to Seattle for me and my sister picked it up. (The airline had told me if/when they found it, I could have it as they didn’t want it.)  I was told by my sister that there were tags on it indicating it had been opened and searched by TSA and that the box was trashed, but I still have not seen it to see what kind of damage it sustained. I’ll find out when I finish my bike tour on my new bike.

Despite it all, air travel remains the most convenient way to transport bikes in many cases. Flying with a bike doesn’t need to be expensive, but you should read the small print to understand all terms and conditions. Know what’s expected of you before arriving at the airport and you will be ready for a freewheeling trip.

This post is in collaboration with our sponsors

books by Nancy Sathre-Vogel

About Nancy Sathre-Vogel

After 21 years as a classroom teacher, Nancy Sathre-Vogel finally woke up and realized that life was too short to spend it all with other people's kids. She and her husband quit their jobs and, together with their twin sons, climbed aboard bicycles to see the world. They enjoyed four years cycling as a family - three of them riding from Alaska to Argentina and one exploring the USA and Mexico. Now they are back in Idaho, putting down roots, enjoying life at home, and living a different type of adventure. It's a fairly sure bet that you'll find her either writing on her computer or creating fantastical pieces with the beads she's collected all over the world.

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3 Responses to Flying with a bike: What to know and how to prepare

  1. Jen Abplanalp May 27, 2015 at 12:58 pm #

    This has been helpful but I have a logistics question. How do you get the boxed bikes to the airport? They’re not small or light boxes that I can take on the bus, and I’ll have my regular luggage as well.

    • Nancy Sathre-Vogel June 19, 2015 at 10:38 am #

      Good question. We have always been lucky in that one, and it’s never posed a huge issue. Maybe a taxi that could strap it on top?

  2. Patty July 3, 2015 at 8:47 am #

    Most larger towns have minivan sized taxi. Just call ahead to arrange it for your pickup time.

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